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Look What’s Learning to Talk – The Web


My son just finished a term paper on the history of computers. One of the more interesting details he unearthed in the course of his research is this 1980 remark by an anonymous IBM employee:

“Why on earth would you care about the personal computer? It has nothing at all to do with office automation. It isn’t a product for big companies who use ‘real’ computers.”

I was reminded of the scene in the movie Casblanca where the Nazi commander, Major Strasser, refers to Rick Blaine as a “bumbling American.” Police Captain Renault relies, “I wouldn’t underestimate American bumbling, Major. I was with them when they bumbled into Berlin in 1918.”

Looking back from our 21st century vantage point, it’s clear that the PC, and then the public World Wide Web, caused sea-changes in culture, business and technology that almost completely displaced the old world order of monolithic mainframes.

But paradigm-changing as the Web was, our understanding of it is also based on some unexamined assumptions. One of them is that the interface with the Web is necessarily typed text. Just as the personal computer toppled accepted wisdom about interacting with computers, new ideas about Web interaction could just as easily depose today’s model. After all, people talked long before they wrote.

As you may guess, people are already pursuing those new ideas. Some of those people are in IBM’s India Research Lab.

The company’s recently announced mobile Web initiative includes a “Spoken Web” project that aspires to nothing less than transforming “how people create, build and interact with e-commerce sites on the World Wide Web using the spoken word instead of the written word,” according to the April 21, 2008 press release. “The Spoken Web is the World Wide Web in a telecom network, where people can host and browse “VoiceSites,” traverse “VoiceLinks,” even conduct business transactions, all just by talking over the existing telephone network.”

If you think about it, this makes a huge amount of sense, if only because are 3.3 billion mobile phones in the world, according to the research firm Informa – about three times the number of PCs in use, (Forrester Research estimate). But there are other compelling arguments for the Spoken Web

Using the Web on a PC requires learning how to interact with a computer, operating system, browser and keyboard. There are many people in the world for whom this is a barrier – and not just because a computer might be beyond their means economically. Some can’t negotiate the complexity of setting up a computer, and some are handicapped and can’t type, but they’re all perfectly capable of asking a question.

We go to the Web all the time to find don’t need require the processing power – or baggage – of a PC. For example, weather conditions, making appointments, or coupons and ads. For example, why should you have to be PC- and networking-savvy just to look up a map or find out what’s on sale at the market?

So the next time you look something up on the Web, think about how simple it would be if you could just ask your phone.